The northern border of Tucson, Arizona is formed by the Santa Catalina mountains. Locally known as "the Catalinas", the range rises from 2500 feet to over 9000 feet at the summit of Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the range. The Catalinas are split into two major sets of peaks, the front range, which is rugged and rocky, and the higher, main range, which is covered in pines, but is much more gentle and rolling. The two sub-ranges are split by the enormous drainage of Sabino Creek. The creek has a west and east fork that come together and form a giant "T", exiting the mountains via beautiful Sabino Canyon.
The high point of the rugged front range is fantastic Cathedral Rock - easily the best summit and one of the most difficult hikes in the Santa Catalina range.
It's about a 10 mile hike (20 mile round trip), with almost 6000 feet of elevation gain to reach the summit of the peak. The last 1.5 miles are off trail hiking with faint trails and a little bit of rock scrambling. Hiking to the peak and back in a day is a pretty significant outing, especially in warm weather. Almost the entire hike is on warm, south facing slopes.
We wanted to spend a night out anyway, so we started in the afternoon, planning to break the hike into two half-days - sleeping along the upper ridges about a mile below the summit. From there, at over 7000 feet, you get a glorious view of the Catalinas and the Tucson lights at night. Leaving Sabino Canyon at 1 pm, we took our time on the long climbs. The route heads out from the trailhead on the Esperero Trail and traverses west, crossing a couple of large drainages before dropping into Esperero Canyon after about 2 or 3 miles. Once on the canyon bottom, you enter a relatively lush oasis of oaks, sycamores, and usually running water. All along this canyon are jagged spires and colorful rock formations - truly one of the most beautiful canyons in southern Arizona. The canyon floor has a diverse display of wildflowers in the spring and summer, along with a lot of wildlife. We saw bear scat, along with an impressive number of bird species - hummingbirds, jays, bluebirds, wrens, cardinals, hawks, thrashers, finches, warblers and phainopeplas. After the record low rainfall this year, the only water was at Bridalveil Falls, at the upper end of the canyon. There we found a pretty good drip - hardly a waterfall. After leaving the falls and the nice campsite nearby, the trail climbs very steeply for another 1.5 miles, eventually reaching a junction for the Cathedral Rock trail 6.3 miles after leaving the trailhead. This junction lies just above 6000 feet elevation. Turn right here, heading up the Cathedral Rock trail. Follow this trail for almost two miles, reaching an obvious saddle on the ridge of the front range. From here the trail drops down the back side of the front range and into the west fork of Sabino Creek. You could make a loop hike by dropping down here, and traversing east to the main fork of Sabino Canyon.
To reach Cathedral Rock, leave the trail at the saddle, heading left (west) up hill along a faint use trail. Climb a hill for about 10 or 15 minutes, then reach a flat section on the ridge - we camped here. If it is a calm night this is an absolutely fantastic place to camp.
From this point head slightly right, following rock cairns uphill, heading left of the summit. Your objective is to cross the rocky summit ridge about half a mile south of the summit, and then turn north heading up an obvious, well marked gully. At two locations you will find fixed ropes that you can use for assistance (one on the ridge, and one in a chimney near the summit). After exiting the chimney near the summit, the final obstacle awaits. The summit block requires an easy but exposed scramble onto the roomy and beautiful summit.
From the summit you get a good view of the entire range, including the forks of Sabino Creek. All the ranges of southern Arizona are visible, and even the Superstition Mountains far to the north can be seen on a clear day.
It is important that any hiker planning to summit Cathedral Rock careful consider their water needs. We carried 10 liters of water for two people, on a 24 hour overnight trip. The weather on our trip was high 70s in town, dropping to freezing at night near the summit. We used all the water we carried, and were a bit dehydrated when we got back to the car. Frequently there is water in Esperero Canyon - but be careful and don't count on it if the weather has been dry. If camping at the upper saddle or along the upper ridge, expect to camp with no water source.
A map for this route available here.